Michigan guard Nik Stauskas (11) gestures at guard Spike Albrecht (2) during the second half Saturday against Minnesota at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. (Tony Ding / Associated Press)
Ann Arbor — Sometimes, the hurting helps. You see it often in sports but especially in college basketball, where memorable runs burst seemingly out of nowhere, and can end just as quickly.
Michigan is feeling no pain right now, but isn’t interested in celebrating an incomplete accomplishment. Michigan State is feeling all sorts of discomfort, and seems to have forgotten what prevails this time of year.
Call it poise, call it confidence. Michigan is displaying it beyond their years, guaranteed at least a share of the Big Ten title following its 66-56 victory over Minnesota on Saturday night. In seven seasons here, this is John Beilein’s most remarkable job, tying together a group that lost key pieces and suffered unexpected blows. The Wolverines somehow are still the youngest team in the Big Ten, and are using every available slice of experience.
In a sport where teams are formed and dismantled every year, you have to soak wisdom as quickly as possible. Beilein leans on free-flowing offense, interchangeable parts and fast learning. Tom Izzo’s formula is built on defensive toughness, and despite the newly visible cracks, it usually works very well.
These days, we’re reminded how fragile it all can be. Three months ago, Michigan State was ranked No. 1 and Michigan was headed to a 6-4 start, and lost inside force Mitch McGary to back surgery. The teams collided and criss-crossed, and while we’ve duly chronicled how the Spartans have been damaged physically, they’ve done a poor job handling it mentally. They’ve dropped six of their last 10, including a 53-46 home meltdown against Illinois on Saturday.
One year ago, Michigan headed to the Tournament with a 6-6 record down the stretch, and suffered an excruciating home loss to Indiana that cost it a share of the Big Ten title. The Wolverines missed free throws and Jordan Morgan’s final tip hung on the rim and fell off, and the Hoosiers escaped with a 72-71 victory and the championship.
A month later, behind Trey Burke, Michigan was playing for the national title, falling to Louisville 82-76. I suppose the Spartans — now sitting approximately where the Wolverines were — can use that as incentive, because they certainly need something to shake themselves awake, starting with seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne.
The Wolverines have adjusted expertly, as Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III ratcheted their roles without Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. And then there’s Morgan, who stepped back into the lineup in McGary’s absence, and as the lone senior, binds it tightly. He has a sharp mind and wide eyes, which don’t have to visualize that crushing miss against Indiana anymore. From hardship to a championship, leaders lead.
“For me, it’s all about encouraging guys,” Morgan said. “And even beyond that, it’s encouraging guys to encourage guys. When we can be great teammates, we can go a long way. I’m just fighting for those rebounds, playing great defense, finishing when my number’s called. Everybody’s come to embrace their roles, and I think that’s why we’re clicking so well.”
Encourage guys to encourage guys — like the assist that leads to the assist. When it’s humming, Beilein’s offense can be spectacular. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in all three major shooting percentages — field goal, 3-point field goal and free throw — which compensates for their low-ranked defense and suspect inside game. Gophers coach Richard Pitino lauded their offense, then finished with a quip: “I told every guy in that (handshake) line, ‘Go pro, get out of there.’ ”
For Michigan (21-7) to go deep into the Tournament again, it needs more than sharp-shooting, and must keep getting contributions from multiple places. Beilein and his players didn’t want to talk much about their second Big Ten title in three years because they need one more victory — at Illinois on Tuesday night or home against Indiana on Saturday night — to clinch the program’s first outright championship since 1986.
Embracing their roles
The Wolverines have done it with a melding pot, so to speak. They’ve melded Morgan and Jon Horford into a combo center they call Morford. The way Spike Albrecht has played late in games, taking over for freshman Derrick Walton Jr., perhaps there’s a Walbrecht forming.
“In the last three, four, five minutes of the game, we always find a way, a couple of big plays that kind of seal the deal for us,” said Stauskas, a Big Ten Player of the Year favorite. “I can have a bad game, Caris can have a bad game, Glenn can have a bad game, and we still find ways.”
Balance is an underrated element, and the more you go through the grind, the more you get out of it. All the close games the past two seasons should harden a team, but when Albrecht, a sophomore, is your most experienced point guard, there’s little room for mistakes.
The Wolverines lead the nation in committing the fewest fouls and are tied for sixth in fewest turnovers. After losing close ones to Iowa State, Charlotte and Arizona early, Michigan is 9-0 in games decided by single digits. That 72-70 loss to then-No. 1 Arizona was the last game McGary played, and since then, Michigan is 15-3.
“We’re young, but we’ve been in the situation so many times,” Morgan said. “I was thinking today about how many times we’ve had to come back to win a game, so many it doesn’t really faze us very much.”
There will be plenty of close games ahead, and the Wolverines will have to be smart with the ball and clutch with their shots. They know things can slide apart as quickly as they come together, valuable wisdom that must be earned to be learned.